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Stories From Moldova

Taking Sustainability Outside the Box


When people hear the word “sustainability,” it typically conjures up images of farm-to-table restaurants that serve organic food grown by local farmers.

Random picture from the open market in Moldova.

In Moldova, EVERYBODY is a farmer. The wages in Moldova are low, but the land is so rich and this kind of lifestyle is an absolute must for everybody living outside of a large city. This is one form of sustainability, but I think that people aren’t aware that this concept can be applicable to a plethora of aspects in our global society.

I served as a Health Education volunteer in a small village the Cahul region of Moldova from 2005-2007. My primary job was to help Moldovan educators teach health education. Working within the school provided me with a lot of contact with people in the village. I noticed that almost everyone in Moldova has at least one person in their extended family who works abroad. Moldovans work abroad in almost any country imaginable, both legally and illegally.

Student from the sports club, organized by RPCV Robert in the community where he served.

I began to ask myself, how do you create a way for good, hard-working people to keep doing good, hard work in the place where they grew up and how could I incorporate that as a side project into my service? Well, jiu jitsu of course!

Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (BJJ) is both a system of self-defense and a combat sport that originated in Brazil shortly after the turn of the 19th century. BJJ is designed to favor the smaller, weaker fighter by bringing the fight to the ground and using technique and leverage in order to subdue a larger, stronger attacker. Due to the length of time one can expect to endure before reaching an adequate level of competency, BJJ inevitably becomes a lifestyle for its practitioners in addition to a martial art and sport.

Robert on the right and Sandu on the left.
Volunteer Robert on the right and his active student Sandu on the left.

I came to my village as a former wrestler who had been fortunate enough to have been training with some of the best grapplers in the world. Even though I was a white belt at the time, my grappling skills were far beyond anything the village had ever seen and so I started a BJJ club. One particular student, Alexandru “Sandu,” was very willing to participate in pretty much anything I had going on at any given time. Baseball? Sure! Basketball? He was there. Fortunately, he didn’t have to rely on my basketball coaching skills to find a path for himself in life, and he was there for practically every jiu-jitsu class I had scheduled.

By the end of my 2-year stint as a volunteer, Sandu, a 16-year-old boy, was giving me a run for my money. He had gone from being a hard-working student to a respectable training partner in about a year and a half. When I eventually left my village, everybody informed me that my newly-minted BJJ team would for sure fail. Moldovans can be pessimistic at times, but I couldn’t help but acknowledge that they might be right.

School gym in the little southern village.

After spending 2 years in the US, I ventured back to my village to see what was going on with the mats I had finagled for the village. Much to my surprise, the kids were still getting on the mats from time to time, and Sandu had taken up judo in the nearby town.

My wife and I decided to live in Romania and over the following four years we visited Moldova on a semi-regular basis. We were fortunate to see Sandu progress through school and continue to keep BJJ as a part of his life. He trained at an established gym in Romania and eventually moved back to Moldova where he decided to make BJJ a permanent part of his career path. He was dedicated and worked tirelessly and now has two thriving BJJ schools in different cities across Moldova.

Sandu instructing.
Sandu instructing his students.

I recently was present as Sandu reached the black belt level and I can’t put into words what an incredibly rewarding experience it was. Now, he uses jiu-jitsu to pay the bills and the likelihood of him having to emigrate for work is almost non-existent. What’s so great about his situation is that he’s chosen to stay at home and develop BJJ in his own country, in his own community. More importantly, there is a small army of Moldovan BJJ practitioners who can, in turn, use their BJJ skills to do the exact same thing that Sandu is doing.

Summer 2018 in Moldova. RPCV Robert on the left and his former student Sandu on the right.

This is real sustainability, and I’m glad to have been a small part of it in Moldova. Real sustainability is more than just a gesture, it’s a lot of hard work on the part of so many different groups of people. It is difficult to actually “teach a man to fish”, but in the end, it can be far more rewarding for everyone involved.

Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu school in Moldova run by Sandu.